THE LITTLE MERMAID
by Gianni Rodari
In the city of Palermo, on the island of Sicily, there lived a poor fisherman.
He was so poor, he didn’t even own a boat. Every day he carried his net down to the sea, tossed it into the water and pulled it up at the end of the day.
One day when he pulled in the net he saw something sparkling. At first he thought it was a doll. But he looked closer, he saw that it was a little mermaid, only two or three feet long.
At first he was frightened and wanted to throw her back in the water. He was a superstitious man, like many of the poor people of Palermo. But as he was trying to decide what to do, he heard a little voice.
“Please, please don’t throw me back.”’
The voice was coming from the mermaid.
It was so small and sad that he looked closer. She was a pretty little creature with long blond hair and the bluest eyes he had ever seen. Just like the color of the ocean.
“What,” he said, very surprised, “But you live in the sea.”
“Please, please” she said again, “I’m lost. I’ll never find my way back home. Please take me home with you.”
Now the fisherman was confused. “How can a mermaid get lost in the sea?
“Oh,” the little mermaid replied, “I was playing
hide and seek with my mother and my friends. I counted too long and when I tried to find them I couldn’t. I swam and swam for two whole days and never found them again. Please take me home with you.”
The fisherman shook his head. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m very poor. My house is very small. I have five huge sons who eat me out of house and home. My wife already says I’m no good at making money.”
“I’ll be good, I promise, “ the little mermaid said. “And I hardly eat anything at all.”
Her voice was so pleading and her eyes so sad that he agreed. “Well, okay, I’ll take you home and talk to my wife. But no promises. If she says you have to go back to the sea, I’ll have to bring you back here.”
“Oh, thank you,” said the little mermaid.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” the fisherman replied, and added, “But now I’ve got to cover you up with my sweater.”
“Am I so ugly? “ she asked.
“Oh no, you’re very beautiful. But you know how people talk. If they see me carrying a mermaid they’ll ask all kinds of questions. It’s better this way.”
So the fisherman covered the little mermaid with his sweater and carried her home in one arm while he dragged his net with the other arm. Soon he stood there in the kitchen before his wife, holding the little mermaid in his arms.
His wife protested. “What, we hardly have enough to eat as it is. Those sons of yours are eating us out of house and home. The house is already crowded and you’re a terrible provider.”
But after she got it all out of her system, and while she looked at this beautiful little creature with the sad eyes, her heart melted. Maybe it was because she’d always wanted a daughter and got only those five huge sons.
“Okay, we’ll try it for just a while. But if there’s any trouble, out she goes.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” the little mermaid said.
“You won’t be sorry, ” the fisherman said.
When their sons came home, they were delighted. “Hooray, at last you’ve given us a sister,” they said all together. They immediately dashed out into the streets to find colorful trinkets for the little mermaid’s hair. They found ribbons and beads and pieces of brightly colored glass, all kinds of things, brought them home, and wound them around their new sister’s hair.
And so the little mermaid stayed with the fisherman and his family. But there was one problem. In Palermo, people lived in small houses on tiny narrow streets. They just used their houses for sleeping. Otherwise, everyone lived in the streets. They played cards in the streets. They sang in the streets. They gossiped in the streets and argued and danced. What would they say about Marina--which was what they named the little mermaid because she came from il mare, the sea. You can’t just bring a mermaid out into the streets and say, “Meet the new member of the family.”
The fisherman thought and thought. Finally, he said, “I know. We’ll put her in a little cart and cover her tail with a blanket and say she’s the poor crippled daughter of some cousins from Messina,” which is another city in Sicily.
And that’s what they did. Marina was fascinated. She sat in her wagon all day watching the strange and wonderful sights. And everybody fussed over Marina and felt sorry for her. The old ladies would come by and pinch her cheeks and, thinking about her poor crippled legs, tears would come to their eyes. The young men would all pretend to fight over who would marry her. Her five brothers were so proud. And she was so happy to sit outside in her wagon her beautiful blue eyes sparkled like the crests of waves.
One day, her brothers came running, full of excitement. The carnival was in town. The whole neighborhood went to see it, and her brothers took Marina in her cart. There were games. And rides. And wonderful things to eat.
Best of all, there was the puppet show, the famous puppets of Palermo. The puppets were gigantic. They were dressed in such wonderful costumes. The puppeteers told a story from many, many years ago, about Brave Knights and Lovely Princesses. The knights dressed in suits of shining armor and fought great battles. And the princesses didn’t just hang around the castle pining for their knights to come home. They also put on armor and fought as bravely as the men. They had wonderful names like Orlando and Martellone, Biancafiore and Gelsomina.
Marina was enchanted. And when they all came home after this long, exciting day, Marina remembered other stories too and began to tell them. Stories she had heard when she lived in the sea. Ancient stories of sea monsters and terrible shipwrecks and giant waves and buried treasures.
She told stories about all the people who had come to Sicily to conquer it, the Greeks and Phoenicians, the Arabs and Spaniards, the French and Romans. Her eyes blazed with wonder and her family sat and listened long into the night.
Marina had never been happier in her entire life, not even when she lived in the sea with her mother.
The next day, when her brothers took her out in the street, she kept on telling stories. The neighbors gathered about to listen. She told the most famous story of all, about the great hero Ulysses who was sailing victoriously home to Ithaca after many years of battle. Ulysses’ ship was approaching the Island of the Sirens, those strange sea creatures who took the form of beautiful women. But more beautiful still were their voices, and they sang the most exquisite songs, irresistible songs, to lure sailors near their island where their ships would crash on the rocks and they would drown.
Ulysses knew what had happened to so many sailors. And he told his men, “I want you to lash me to the mast with our strongest ropes. And no matter what I say, no matter how much I shout or yell or bellow, do not cut me down from the mast. Whoever tries will be put to death. As for you, stop your ears with this wax so you won’t hear anything.”
And so the ship of Ulysses and his men drew near the Island of the Sirens, and the Sirens knew that it was the great hero Ulysses who was approaching, and so they sang every more sweetly and more seductively. What a trophy he would make! Tied to the mast Ulysses thrashed and bellowed and ordered his men to cut him down. But since their ears were stopped with wax they heard nothing and the ship sailed safely passed the Island of the Sirens and home to Ithaca.
All the people gathered round to listen, and they were captivated. An old sailor warned the fisherman, “Watch out, she’s enchanted you all.”
And indeed she had. For Marina was a siren too. But now that she had lived among humans her heart had become human.
From then on, every day the people gathered round to hear Marina’s stories. And every day Marina told stories and more stories.
The little old ladies still came round to pinch her cheeks and the young men still pretended to fight over who was going to marry her. But no one ever again felt sorry for the poor little crippled girl from Messina. Her voice was clear and bright, and in her eyes shone such merriment, such joy…a carnival.
Translation copyright 2001 by Bernie Libster